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The REAL Reason for Climate Change


The REAL reason for climate change is explained scientifically, for skeptics…

Milankovitch (Orbital) Cycles and Their Role in Earth's Climate

By Alan Buis,
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Our lives literally revolve around cycles: series of events that are repeated regularly in the same order. There are hundreds of different types of cycles in our world and in the universe. Some are natural, such as the change of the seasons, annual animal migrations or the circadian rhythms that govern our sleep patterns. Others are human-produced, like growing and harvesting crops, musical rhythms or economic cycles.

Cycles also play key roles in Earth’s short-term weather and long-term climate. A century ago, Serbian scientist Milutin Milankovitch hypothesized the long-term, collective effects of changes in Earth’s position relative to the Sun are a strong driver of Earth’s long-term climate, and are responsible for triggering the beginning and end of glaciation periods (Ice Ages).

Specifically, he examined how variations in three types of Earth orbital movements affect how much solar radiation (known as insolation) reaches the top of Earth’s atmosphere as well as where the insolation reaches. These cyclical orbital movements, which became known as the Milankovitch cycles, cause variations of up to 25 percent in the amount of incoming insolation at Earth’s mid-latitudes (the areas of our planet located between about 30 and 60 degrees north and south of the equator).

The Milankovitch cycles include:

  1. The shape of Earth’s orbit, known as eccentricity;
  2. The angle Earth’s axis is tilted with respect to Earth’s orbital plane, known as obliquity; and
  3. The direction Earth’s axis of rotation is pointed, known as precession.
  4. Eccentricity – Earth’s annual pilgrimage around the Sun isn’t perfectly circular, but it’s pretty close. Over time, the pull of gravity from our solar system’s two largest gas giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, causes the shape of Earth’s orbit to vary from nearly circular to slightly elliptical. Eccentricity measures how much the shape of Earth’s orbit departs from a perfect circle. These variations affect the distance between Earth and the Sun.

Eccentricity is the reason why our seasons are slightly different lengths, with summers in the Northern Hemisphere currently about 4.5 days longer than winters, and springs about three days longer than autumns. As eccentricity decreases, the length of our seasons gradually evens out.

The difference in the distance between Earth’s closest approach to the Sun (known as perihelion), which occurs on or about January 3 each year, and its farthest departure from the Sun (known as aphelion) on or about July 4, is currently about 5.1 million kilometers (about 3.2 million miles), a variation of 3.4 percent. That means each January, about 6.8 percent more incoming solar radiation reaches Earth than it does each July.

When Earth’s orbit is at its most elliptic, about 23 percent more incoming solar radiation reaches Earth at our planet’s closest approach to the Sun each year than does at its farthest departure from the Sun. Currently, Earth’s eccentricity is very slowly decreasing and is approaching its least elliptic (most circular), in a cycle that spans about 100,000 years.

Obliquity – The angle of Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted as it travels around the Sun is known as obliquity. Obliquity is why Earth has seasons. Over the last million years, it has varied between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees with respect to Earth’s orbital plane. The greater Earth’s axial tilt angle, the more extreme our seasons are, as each hemisphere receives more solar radiation during its summer, when the hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun, and less during winter, when it is tilted away. Larger tilt angles favor periods of deglaciation (the melting and retreat of glaciers and ice sheets). These effects aren’t uniform globally -- higher latitudes receive a larger change in total solar radiation than areas closer to the equator.

Earth’s axis is currently tilted 23.4 degrees, or about half way between its extremes, and this angle is very slowly decreasing in a cycle that spans about 41,000 years. It was last at its maximum tilt about 10,000 years ago and will reach its minimum tilt about 10,000 years from now. As obliquity decreases, it gradually helps make our seasons milder, resulting in increasingly warmer winters, and cooler summers that gradually, over time, allow snow and ice at high latitudes to build up into large ice sheets. As ice cover increases, it reflects more of the Sun’s energy back into space, promoting even further cooling.




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